BY ROBERT P. MADER of CONTRACTOR’s staff

NEW YORK — Stanley Berger is a hard-core people person, an unusual trait for an accountant; then again, Berger noted that he never would have been as successful as he has been at contracting if he had been a usual accountant.

“I’ve been doing it for 33 years now, and I’ve loved every minute of it,” Berger said. “I like the customers, the interrelationships with customers, suppliers, manufacturers and the various trade organizations. I like dealing with our employees. We have good people who have been here a long, long time. I’ve enjoyed watching some of them grow up. It’s been very rewarding in that sense.”

Berger will take over as president of the Mechanical Contractors Association of America March 1 at the group’s convention in Scottsdale, Ariz. He owns service and installation contractor, Arista Air Conditioning Corp. in Long Island City, N.Y.

It’s fitting that Berger believes that two of the industry’s biggest challenges are people related. One is the self-respect of the contractor.

“We forget the value we bring to the table and start doubting ourselves,” he explained. “It’s not fair to us, it’s not fair to anybody. We as contractors should feel more strongly about ourselves, and what we’re selling and what we’re doing. If we did, we wouldn’t compromise ourselves.”

A related problem is convincing people (and their families) that the plumbing and pipe fitting industry is worthwhile.

“It’s very rewarding, a good path for a lot of people,” he said “There’s tremendous opportunity to go from the field to the office, to project management and service management. There’s tremendous growth, self-growth. You can be your own entrepreneur and open your own business. There are great training programs from MSCA, MCAA and the UA.”

In that vein, sons Scott and Craig Berger are both in the business and involved in MCAA and other organizations. Scott Berger was president of his local Air Conditioning Contractors of America chapter when he was 28, his father noted. The Bergers were tempted to sell by consolidators and utilities in the 1990s but decided to keep Arista a family business.

Contractors are also challenged by technology. Customers are e-mailing him 50 pages of plans or service requests, he said, and cell phones follow him everywhere. But while technology is inevitable, it’s not necessarily good thing.

“What happened to walking down the hall and asking a question?” Berger asked in regards to e-mail. “I like to talk to people, I’m old fashioned. I like to hear their voice and I like the give and take.”

But people can disappoint him too, Berger said. If an employee abandons him for the competition and tries to take customers with him, Berger said he doesn’t regard that as a legal issue but as a breach of loyalty.

“I’ve been disappointed by people,” he said. “I’m an open person. I have a tremendous amount of trust in how I deal with people.”

Berger said he would never turn on anybody that way, and he’s disappointed that someone would do it to him. His love of people is how he got involved with MCAA after an unlikely start in the contracting business.

Berger was a certified public accountant taking care of a small client, an HVAC service and installation business, and in 1972 he was involved in helping sell the business. The owner, a one-man dynamo, was 58 years old and he was burnt out, although very profitable, Berger said. In the process of selling the business and meeting prospective buyers, Berger realized that he could be in the mechanical contracting business without having an engineering degree or coming from the field. He met one owner with a bachelor of arts background.

So Berger approached Leo Stern and asked to buy his business.

“Leo Stern was a great mentor,” Berger said. “He just passed away this year at the age of 86. He was a great friend to me. He was supposed to stay for 10 months and he stayed for five years as an employee and taught me the business.”

Following Stern up and down ladders for five years made Berger a “practical engineer” who is comfortable designing multimillion-dollars job. Berger also did all the dispatching, purchasing, accounting and billing, working 10-12 hour days, six days a week. Now, however, Arista is 20 times larger and is the largest service contractor in New York City, he said.

One of his most difficult tasks is collecting his money.

“It’s disappointing from time to time, when you go out on a limb,” he said. “I’m a people person and you try to give them, the customers, 1,000% of you and then you don’t see any appreciation.”

Being a people person got him involved with MCAA. He went to a local meeting of a group of service contractors. He was impressed and became a regular. Eventually, he was asked by the local president to go to MCAA headquarters in Maryland and check out MCAA’s Service and Maintenance Bureau.

“Before I turned around, I was on the board of managers,” he said.

He served a six-year term on the board of the Mechanical Service Contractors Association, took a hiatus and then served another six-year term, ending as chairman. He is nearing the end of a six-year term on the MCAA board, the last three years on the executive committee.

“I’ve met fellow contractors from all over the country,” he said. “It opens up a whole new world to you. These are great people, bar none. The contractor volunteers are so involved, so immersed. I hope to teach them something and I hope that they teach me.”

Berger also noted that the professional staff at MCAA is first rate, an opinion he said he hears seconded all over the country. The staff will make it easy for him to be president, he said.